Louis Armstrong Walked On The Moon . . . Or Was He That Biker Guy?

louisI teach classes in accent reduction and citizenship for new Americans in the Bay Area. I’ve learned that someone from another country, with advanced degrees, can be forgiven for making such a cultural faux pas. Young Americans who make these mistakes, however, should stay after school.

Within the past year, no less than six people with advanced degrees have responded thusly, when presented with the assessment question: “Do you know who Louis Armstrong is?” The dreaded reply: “Uh, is he the guy who walked on the moon– no he’s that biker guy, right?” Oy. Uffda.

This is an important question and index of cultural awareness. I also recognize attaching importance to that question makes me somewhat dated. Truth be told, I am not a child of the 40s, but of the 60s. Everyone is an expert on the music they grew up with, but I also happen to be an expert on the music my parents and grandparents grew up with. Such is a consequence of spending years as a jazz and blues DJ in radio.

Louis Armstrong is one of the most important people in American History. He defined the musical vocabulary of jazz, and impacted every sound that came after him, up to and including rock ‘n’ roll. He had a quiet impact on the Civil Rights Movement, after being shunned in his hometown of New Orleans. Armstrong’s collaborations with other great musicians resulted in a rich cross-fertilization of musical elements that eventually gave us Be-bop (which he hated), the other sub-genres of jazz lead by Miles Davis, and of course rock ‘n’ roll.

The actual lineage is: Louis Armstrong begat Fletcher Henderson, who begat Chick Webb, who backed up Ella Fitzgerald as she first uttered the words, “Rock ‘n’ Roll” in the 1937 song Rock It For Me, by Kay and Sue Warner. Webb also begat Louis Jordan, who is rightfully, considered the “father” of rock ‘n’ roll to many musical historians.

As a child in the late 1950s, my parents took me to see The Five Pennies, a depressing movie with some great jazz played by Armstrong and other greats. Benny Carter was the musical director, and Danny Kaye played Red Nichols, the band leader whose child was stricken by polio. I fell in love with Louis Armstrong before I was five years old. No turning back.

No student, no matter how young or old, whether they’re from Suburban America or Inner Mongolia will leave my program NOT knowing who Louis Armstrong is. As a result, I ask my students to keep notes on cultural issues and Americana that arise in our discussions. It is important for new Americans to know about music, movies, art, dance and sporting events of “high historical importance.” The same is true for current events and political developments.

If a technical hotshot is attending a corporate dinner party and makes the mistake of mis-identifying Louis Armstrong in the midst of his professional colleagues, it creates embarrassment for all present. That is less forgivable than say:

  • Placing the accent of a word on the wrong syllable
  • Mispronouncing the “r”, “n” and “l” sounds in words, which is common to speakers of Asian languages.
  • Forgetting that the letter “s” in the final position of a word is most often a “z”-sounding “s”, as native Spanish speakers often do.
  • Speaking so fast and recklessly that the listener has barely a clue to what s/he is agreeing to by nodding politely.

We’ve learned to tolerate and interpret the difficulties of our colleagues who emigrated from other countries. But by patronizing this element, we do our friends a disservice. Bright people like to get things right. I’ve offered a correction at times and been told, “I’ve been doing it that way for 20 years; how come nobody told me before now? Thank you.”

This student was shocked and embarrassed to know that her friends had been patronizing and humoring her over her language deficiencies for so many years. I teach that candor is a valuable commodity in America , and recommend reading or seeing a Tennessee Williams play to illustrate that.

Sometimes we are overly polite to our new American neighbors when we should be saying, “I’m sorry, but I missed the last part of your comment. Could you please repeat it?” By patronizing bad usage and verbal mistakes, we nurture mediocrity among a group of people who are often perfectionists.

So, in my class, we take time outs to discuss important films, literature, dances, sporting events, and current events. My experiences of struggling with a language in a new country, taught me that it’s no fun to sit on the sideline when an interesting conversation is going on, and I only have clues to the substance. My clientele is heavy on technocrats, scientists, math teachers and high-tech managers. Some are surprisingly attuned to our cultural history, while others have not read much English other than their reference books and trade journals. These are the ones that become my clients a year or three later:

They excel in their field through their education and early part of their careers. Then they realize the promotions are no longer coming, or are suddenly out of the loop for important meetings. Maybe they don’t get invited to a conference where they gave a talk the year before.

These signs are devastating to a perfectionist. Even worse, is when someone actually loses a job over communication issues, but everyone is too polite to offer the candid feedback this bright person needs to hear. That’s killing them with kindness.

In a sense, Louis Armstrong DID walk on the moon, and water too. But that comes in the “advanced” portion of the class.

H. Scott Prosterman

Scott Prostermanis a music, film and dance historian in Berkeley. He worked as a disc jockey in Pittsburgh and Memphis, where he grew up and where it all began. He was born in the 50s, grew up in the 60s, thrived in the 70s, barely survived the 80s, and re-grouped in the 90s.

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